A faint horsey smell from a livestock event pervades the Wheatland A Building on Saskatoon's exhibition grounds as Wide Mouth Mason sets up for a hometown show. "We had it piped in specially," lead vocalist and guitarist Shaun Verreault quips of the aroma. "We were homesick."
Following weeks of hotels and restaurants, he, Safwan Javed and Earl Pereira were glad of the brief stop at home. After one concert, they headed for more dates in Western Canada and rejoined the AC/DC tour, which winds up in North Dakota this Sunday.
Despite a long flight from Atlanta, Verreault is personable and relaxed. Having completed a recent successful tour with the Moffats, the band planned a hiatus to do some songwriting. Then they were asked to open for AC/DC. Former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash, scheduled to tour with the legendary rockers, had pneumonia.
Two days later, Wide Mouth Mason was on board. "It's a great experience," Verreault says. "It's fun to play in major arenas. And we've just executed the first-ever Moffats-AC/DC one-two punch," he adds with a chuckle. It takes a versatile group to complement such disparate entertainers. The Moffats have a melodic, teen-pop presence and as for hard-rocking AC/DC . . . "I think you could say they're anti-Moffats," Verreault ventures. As a stimulant, Wide Mouth Mason might be classified somewhere in the middle, between adrenalin and glucose.
The trio, all in their late 20s, will seize any opportunity to perform. They opened for The Guess Who reunion tour last year and earlier appeared with ZZ Top and the Rolling Stones, and at Switzerland's Montreaux Jazz Festival. Their music varies dramatically too, from love songs to dreamlike narratives to the poignant depiction of an abused woman in Sister Sally.
Wide Mouth Mason is a funky handle inspired by the glass jars used for homemade preserves. Jamming, jam jar . . . get it? It's not about the Masonic order or any of the other fanciful explanations band members dish out for fans and gullible interviewers. The trio got together in 1993 and formed Wide Mouth Mason two years later. Javed, drummer and vocalist, had chummed with Verreault at the same elementary and high schools. At a different high school, Pereira was lead singer and bass player with another band.
When they began playing together, Pereira pushed Verreault into the role of lead singer. Stoked with diverse influences, from Motown and the Beatles to the Police, they began performing in small-town bars after high school. Verreault was then working in a music store and teaching guitar. Pereira and Javed were University of Saskatchewan students, the former wavering between dentistry and archeology, the latter intent on law.
Born in Pakistan, Javed immigrated to Canada with his parents at age 4. It's his native Urdu he chants or yells in the song My Old Self. As a first-generation child in this country, "I was aware my parents brought me here for opportunities they didn't have," he says. "It's a big responsibility." He felt guilty gravitating toward music. He opted out of law, but completed a degree in religious studies before focusing on the band.
Each member has cultivated a well-defined role. Pale and slight with short, wavy hair, Verreault personifies the friendly and chatty guy next door. His backstage warmup involves jumping up and down like a trampolinist on caffeine. The frenetic motions carry over to his performance, where he leaps around and flings back his head while singing and playing guitar (selected from an array of five he has lined up at this concert). One of his tricks is plucking the strings with his two front teeth, à la Jimi Hendrix.
"When I see videos of our performances, I think, 'I look like that?' I just flail around, but it's nothing I can help."
Javed, who is tall, dark and muscular, adopts a sombre, even fierce expression in publicity photos, but behind the scowl is another pleasant and articulate young man. He laughs when asked what he's reading now, responding, "Kafka's The Trial and basketball magazines."
Dogged concerning his own perceived weaknesses, he pursued basketball in high school despite, he admits, "having no natural ability." More recently, he confronted his fear of heights to skydive with Verreault.
"There are six seconds of free fall where everything in and around you stops," Javed says. "It's complete silence and it's exhilarating."
Although Pereira was born in Saskatoon, his roots are in the Philippines. His is a musical family; an older brother was in a band before he was. In addition to handling bass and vocals, Pereira draws up the set lists before each show. He maintains an enigmatic presence by avoiding interviews and releasing little personal information. On stage, he's cool, self-absorbed, his movements staccato.
His cohorts post their birth dates and answers to FAQs (frequently asked questions) on the band's Web site, widemouthmason.com, but Pereira opts out. He does the same in person. After the sound check in Saskatoon, he drifts off, leaving the other two to handle the interview. "That's Earl; he always does this," they say in mock exasperation. They suggest I try to catch him backstage a few hours later, just before the performance, but by then he's too busy writing the set list. His cachet remains intact.
Comprising two members of visible minorities and one self-described "mutt," the group received valuable training early on, winning over hecklers in small Prairie towns. "We played whatever the biggest guy in the bar asked for," Verreault says with a grin.
"We're not usually nervous backstage, because the growth of our band has been logical and comfortable," he adds. "We've opened for groups who sell out a club, then a theatre, then an arena." But he admits it's a challenge playing for AC/DC fans, who want only their idols, or the anticipated opening act, Slash.
"Slash is not there, they're mad and they've never heard of us," Verreault says. But they're usually attentive by the third song and on-side by the sixth and last tune. It's exciting, he adds, "to win over a whole new audience."
The band members have always explored many musical directions, he says. "We're so diverse; we have real varied CD collections." They flavour a blues-rock broth with dashes of pop, world music, reggae, jazz, you-name-it, simmered and stirred to yield a distinctive sound. Their most recent recording, Stew, is aptly named.
Despite the wealth of influences and the willingness to experiment, "we're gonna sound like us, no matter what," Verreault emphasizes. Paradoxically, "the part of our band that is the most appealing -- its eclecticism -- means it's not as commercially viable," he continues. Noting that AC/DC is "proud to have made the same record 14 times," he allows that predictability helps commercial acceptance. Having insisted on creative freedom, Wide Mouth Mason is in the unusual situation of touring the United States without a U.S. record deal.
The group has four recordings, including its first, independent CD, the 1996 Nazarene. Much of it was rerecorded for the group's self-named CD, released by Warner in 1997. That recording went gold in Canada and, the following spring, Wide Mouth Mason was presented with two Canadian Radio Music Awards, for best new group and for its single, Midnight Rain. Also nominated for a Juno Award for best new group, Wide Mouth Mason has since produced two more CDs: Where I Started in 1999 and last year's Stew.
They tapped new creative energy for Stew. The band co-wrote with Craig Northey, formerly of the Odds, and Big Sugar's Gordie Johnson, who also produced Stew.
"In the States, it's more of a political game," Verreault says. "It's always been that way. The music business is half music, half business." Although Wide Mouth Mason has supporters in the U.S. record companies, he says, its refusal to embrace a more generic sound has been a stumbling block.
"Some people might think we've already sold out, by having had a major label deal and a tour sponsored by a condom company," he muses. The band travelled last year in a big pink "sperm bus," featuring a spermatozoal emblem.
"Our motivation is not hype or having a record company pushing us," Verreault says. "It's about getting out there in front of people and walking away with 90 per cent of them loving us. We have fans that have the greatest ears. They let us get away with anything; they don't expect us to 'dumb' our sound down. If the industry does get stuck on music we don't have in us, we're quite content being a 'cult band.' "